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Jazz is like…chess?

Editor’s Note: While we’re all excited for this Saturday’s double-bill with the Vijay Iyer Trio and Rudresh Mahanthappa’s Apex, not all of us are as well-versed in jazz from the cutting edge as we’d like to be. Lucky for us, Andrew Bishop, Assistant Professor of Jazz and Contemporary Improvisation at U-M, is here to help. Read on for Andrew’s outstanding explanation of how Vijay and Rudresh are expanding the language of jazz and what we can listen for at the concert this Saturday.

Jazz has often been compared to the game of chess.  Both are sophisticated constructs that require invention and reinvention to play with a fresh voice and approach.  Both demand constant study, practice and imagination.  Even a novel opening move compels in-the-moment flexibility to navigate through unexpected turns.  Great players develop a style that becomes a their trademark move, gesture or phrase.

Often neglected in this analogy is the notable connection of chess set design and its similarity to jazz composition.  Like the designer, the composer works to find novel ways to organize and craft materials.  It is the players, however, that shape the moves through their own style and personality.

Variations on chess set design are also a convenient way to encapsulate the countless directions jazz is expressed.  For example, a gothic model might be compared to traditional jazz formats while designs that incorporate current trends in popular culture (a set with Harry Potter characters for example) to a jazz trio performing a Madonna tune.

There are also designs that seem to stray completely beyond the game’s intent, for example Yoko Ono’s all white “pacifist” chess set.

Yoko Ono's Pacifist Chess Set

Here the design is intentionally fashioned so the players lose track of their offensive strategy and gain empathy for their opponent.  The esoteric nature of this design is not unlike the many artists exploring sound outside of the traditional boundaries of harmony, melody and traditional instrument techniques.  This is also akin to a jazz improviser’s method of creating a musical problem to intentionally remove clichés or patterns (often called “cookie cutters” or “ready made ideas” by musicians in the field).

It is perhaps the design of Josef Hartwig’s “Bauhaus” chess set that is most befitting a comparison to the music of Vijay Iyer and Rudresh Mahanthappa and their many collaborators and colleagues.

Josef Hartwig Chess Set

Upon first glance the set may appear to break all of the rules—the knights don’t look like horses, the royal figures don’t have crowns, etc.  However, when you examine the chess set deeply the figures reveal a notable detail:  they are shaped to signify the way the pieces move on the board.  This is a remarkable marriage of form and function and a well crafted, thought provoking, and beautiful departure from the norm while embracing a fundamental aspects of the game.  The music of Vijay Iyer and Rudresh Mahanthappa exhibits many of the same traits: intelligent in its design, highly personal in its language while remaining respectful of the various traditions from which the music has spawned.

Expanding the Language of Jazz

Vijay Iyer and Rudresh Mahanthappa are a part of a large cadre of artists expanding the color palette of jazz.  While each artist brings a personal approach and aesthetic path to the table, there are a few cogent elements that emerge as notable trends:

  • Larger compositional frameworks drawn from diverse musical sources and influences
  • The influence of world and folk music forms
  • Inspiration from the popular musical canon beyond Tin Pan Alley song forms
  • A search for an individual (or collective) improvisation and composition language
  • Extended instrument techniques to expand sonic resources
  • The influence and interaction with computers and technology
  • Interdisciplinary inspiration (mathematics, history, biology, and literature for example)

Perhaps the most noteworthy element, these ideas go beyond an abstract method for musical ideas but are also an attempt to connect the music to the broader cultural environment we inhabit in the twenty-first century.

A Few Musical Excerpts with Brief Commentary

Here is a You Tube clip of a work called “The Preserver” performed by the duo Raw Materials (Iyer and Mahanthappa) live at the JVC Jazz Festival.  The work navigates with ease through composed elements, improvisation and dialogue between the performers.

“Mystic Brew” was originally recorded by jazz-soul organist Ronnie Foster but received a rebirth when the hip-hop group Tribe Called Quest used the opening chord progression as a sample (or loop) in “Electronic Relaxation.”  In this performance, the Vijay Iyer Trio establishes the tunes chord progression but deconstructs it rhythmically throughout.

The following link demonstrates one of Iyer’s explorations with technology, here in a duo improvisation with HPrizm on interactive laptop.

One of the most globally minded projects of both artists is Rudresh Mahanhtappa’s Indo-Pak Coalition featuring Rez Abbasi and the amazing Dan Weiss on tablas.  (Weiss, a remarkable performer and composer in his own right, has also fully integrated tabla technique to the drum set).  In this link, Mahanthappa uses expanded saxophone techniques to incorporate microtonal effects (a musical sound which finds steps in between the half-step—the smallest interval on the piano).  While this is not a standard practice in Western music, microtonal gestures are a regular part of the expressive palette of many world music cultures.

Postscript: Bunky Green

Few artists can truly claim to have a “voice changing” presence on their instrument, but Bunky Green arguably set forth a sound that would influence the alto saxophone for decades to come.  Many important alto players—including Steve Coleman, Greg Osby, and of course Rudresh Mahanthappa—owe a tip of the hat to his sound, approach to harmony, rhythmic sense, sonic nuance, fierce articulation and linear development.  He was so idealized and revered by Steve Coleman that the young protégé used to sit outside Green’s window just to listen to him practice.  Like the Bauhaus chess set, his pure, focused tone is the perfect marriage for the logic of his improvisational language.

Here is a link to a video about the collaboration between Mahanthappa and Green called Apex.